Victorian Ghost Hunters in the 21st Century

Conflict, Continuity and the End of Psychical Research

Since its founding in 1882, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) has been the leader and model for the investigation of what we now call the ‘paranormal’, as both a profession and the expression of a subculture. Despite that considerable history and reputation, the SPR has now largely been eclipsed by new forms of investigation into the paranormal of varying and different degrees of professionalisation from academic parapsychology to popular ‘ghost hunting’, with some groups particularly expressing ghost hunting as a media event and form of entertainment. This paper will situate the continuity of the SPR against this conflict with new organisational and experiential forms, using indepth interviewing and participant observation methodologies to elucidate the evolving nature of the investigation of the paranormal at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

This paper will historically chart the emergence of ‘ghost hunting’ as a particular form of investigation into the paranormal, situating the foundation of the SPR against this, and showing how the SPR currently faces top-down pressure from academic parapsychology and bottom-up pressure from popular ghost hunting that threaten its continuing relevance today. The ‘end of psychical research’ is thus to be understood as terminological as well as organisational: with the term ‘psychical research’ now entirely restricted to usage by the SPR it highlights the growing marginalisation of the SPR within its own field. Nuancing this historical approach will be a sociological investigation into the demographics, beliefs and attitudes of those engaging in this field.

Paper presented at the 62nd Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association in Paris, July 2019.